History of MIT’s involvement in the IIT’s

Last night, I attended an event at The Computer History Museum in Mountain View for an event co-sponsored by TiE-Silicon Valley featuring technology historian Dr. Ross Bassett, who has focused on the history of modern technology development between the U.S. and India, in conversation with T.M. Ravi, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and graduate of IIT-Kanpur. To start, I would like to say that, as my first time to the museum, I was very impressed and just signed up for my own membership. I also had the chance to meet the museum’s CEO & President, who is a very friendly guy.

The conversation between Bassett and Ravi allowed the audience to glean some discoveries from Bassett’s seminal work. In the interest of time and brevity, I’ll share some key takeaways in bullet-point form, and share a final thought at the end:

  • MIT’s engagement with India began before India gain its independence in 1947. Once Nehru became prime minister, he helped lay the groundwork for a series of technical universities which would eventually become the IITs, and he had many professors at MIT in particular help him shape the strategy for this.
  • As the five IITs were built, each campus was offered to partner with a particular country – Madras with Germany (focus on machines), Kanpur with the U.S., Delhi with Britain, Bombay with the Soviets. I can’t recall who tied up with Kharagpur, but if someone remembers/knows, please tell me.
  • This is fascinating: For the U.S. partnership with IIT-Kanpur, 10 esteemed U.S. universities were invited, and only one declined: Stanford. Of course, Stanford today has no problem attracting some of the best IIT products from India, but this is still an interesting tidbit.
  • According to Bassett, the Government of India was smart to avoid a traditional trap by trying to replicate a U.S. technology ecosystem, but instead focused on areas that were complimentary to developed markets, mainly software.
  • MIT faculty and graduates, some of whom help set up TCS, were instrumental in forming that company and other current Indian IT giants because they had all the connections and credibility to close sales in the U.S.
  • Today, now that 99% of folks in tech worldwide recognize the IIT brand as one of — if not the — best, India has to worry about (1) diluting the IIT brand as it franchises to other campuses, where Bassett doesn’t believe it has enough homegrown faculty to meet the demand; and (2) to address universal education in India. He said, relatively, setting up the IITs were easy.

I left the event thinking more about how deep the connection between the U.S. and India really is, from political systems to technology, from movie culture and so on.  And, for IITs specifically, it is now clearer from Bassett’s work how much MIT as a single institution served as both an inspiration and catalyst for launching the IIT brand as it is known today. Lucky for India, they did not try to copy for innovation, as many do. Instead, they sought out gap areas, like software, and built an industry around that, looking forward, looking ahead. The rest is, as they say, history.